By Paul Smith
The competition to choose the next Prime Minister is approaching its conclusion. For the housing geeks, the big disappointment is that housing is not a key battleground. I haven’t heard a single media report on what the candidates have said about social housing. If you are shouting “It’s the economy stupid” I might retort “It’s the stupid economy.”
So, what have Rishi and Liz (now Prime Ministers can only have first names) been saying about housing and planning?
The most reported comment during the campaign has been from Mr Sunak, that his planning policy was “brownfield, brownfield, brownfield” accusing local councils of “…taking land out of the greenbelt for development, but I will put a stop to that.” “Protecting our Greenbelt” is the only housing-related policy that makes it into Sunak’s “Ten Point Plan” I have already discussed the green belt here: https://cratus.co.uk/we-need-to-talk-about-the-green-belt
It is difficult to know where to start with this statement, it misunderstands and misrepresents the position in several ways. Firstly, any analysis shows that the amount of the greenbelt lost is a tiny proportion. For me, the facepalm is the false dichotomy between brownfield and greenbelt, there is plenty of brownfield land in the green belt, but they are not mutually exclusive. His statement was clearly targeted at Conservative members in the famous shires as he went on to say, “Data shows that well over a million homes could be built across the country on brownfield sites with particularly high capacity in the North West, Yorkshire, and the West Midlands.” Presumably in those places where he told the good people of Tunbridge Wells that he was busy as Chancellor taking money away from. It should also be noted that the consensus figure of housing need of 300,000 homes per year would soak up those sites in just over three years, and councils are expected to have a five-year land supply of sites. The statement could just be an attempt to outwit Liz Truss who hit the headlines when she was Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2019 and told the Daily Mail “We need to build a million homes on the London Green Belt near railway stations, and around growing cities, specifically to allow the under 40s to be able to own their own homes” and “we should allow villages to expand by four or five houses a year without having to go through the planning system so people can afford to live locally”. Notice that the figure of one million popped up in both statements.
Both candidates have emphasised that new homes can only go ahead if supported by residents (those who already have homes), both being clearly aware that new developments are often unpopular.
While there is a recognition that new homes are needed. Liz Truss has also said that she would “abolish top-down Whitehall inspired Stalinist housing targets.” Not having housing targets has the advantage that one can’t be criticised for not meeting them. Interestingly, it is not clear if it is non-Whitehall inspired, non-Stalinist housing targets can be established. Rishi has followed Liz’s line stating that he “Does not believe in arbitrary, top-down numbers.” Again, raising the question what does he mean by “arbitrary”?
Liz plans to create new investment zones where Government will “remove restrictions and other regulations to boost housebuilding” and Rishi has pledged to introduce ‘use it or lose it’ taxes for developers who don’t implement planning permissions.
Neither candidate has made a pitch that is clearly focused on the Conservative Party membership, which is hardly surprising given they are the electorate. That membership is thought to be largely home-owning and issues around the provision of social housing or greater rights for private tenants are peripheral. Progress was being made under the DLUHC on a range of issues under the leadership of Michael Gove including the cladding crisis, commitments for more social housing, and the scrapping of no-fault evictions.
My hope is that once we get past the 5th of September, we can see housing policies that reflect the needs of the whole country and not just party members.